Parents can’t be in the trunk

April is focused on the child; Month of the Military Child and abuse prevention. It is also a good time to focus on the goal of good parenting.

Several questions parents might ask are: Into what sort of adult do I want my child to grow? Is parenting just about good behavior? Or, do I want my child simply to be happy, loving, respectful, fulfilled or all of the above?

Parenting strategies often focus on “managing” children’s behavior or getting children to do what we want them to do. We want them to take a bath, eat their dinner, clean their room, stop fighting with siblings, cease the tantrums, study and make good grades, and when they are older, drive responsibly, hang out with the right kids, not use drugs or not drink alcohol underage. And for goodness sake, do not get arrested.

But is it possible to manage and control our children, to have them do what we want? In the short run, the answer is certainly “yes.” When they are young we can employ timeouts, corporal punishment, taking privileges, forbid this and that. Such strategies work in the short term. But when our children are older, these tactics do not work as well. It is much more difficult to manage a teenager or young adult. By the time our children are older, parents prefer that children make their own good decisions, without coercion.

Let’s begin with the simple assumption that we want our children to grow to be responsible adults who have a sense of their own competency.

The first step to that goal is to allow our children to be responsible and competent at an early age. Our best strategy as parents is to avoid being “helicopter parents,” parents who swoop down and solve every one of our children’s problems, intervene in every dilemma or fix every situation. As parents, we believe that this is our role. But it is not. Our role is to guide and coach our children to take responsibility, think about their own situation and come up with their own solutions, with empathic and loving guidance.

Parents need to ask themselves when confronted with their children’s demands, complaints or needs, “Whose problem is it? Is it my problem as a parent, or is it my child’s problem?” One of the most powerful statements a parent can use is, “I’m so sorry. What do you think you are going to do about that?” And when our children come up blank, we ask, “Would you like some suggestions?” Resist the temptation to lecture and harangue.

Another principle is to allow children to make mistakes. We all know we learned more from our mistakes than from other people’s advice and lectures. We should ask ourselves, as parents, “Is this a safe, allowable mistake?” Will our children learn more from the temporary discomfort, embarrassment and inconvenience than from our instruction, lecture and intervention?

Also, give children choices, even in their consequences. Give children the space to think about and decide on consequences. And, if we as parents don’t know what those consequences are going to be, take some time to walk away, think about it and get back to the child. The idea that consequences need to be immediate to be effective is a myth. Simply say; “I don’t know what I am going to do right now, but I will do something. I will get back to you.”

And most importantly, stop arguing. Refuse to argue. Remember, arguments are more about power than logic. Take back your power by refusing to enter the argument arena. Parents need only respond with, “I love you too much to argue.”

The bottom line is this, we all need to be responsible and make our own decisions. And by experiencing periodic failures, we learn. And as we get better at this process, we feel more competent. This is true for our children also. Our children can make decisions, make mistakes, learn and get better at the process at an early age.

We are not always going to be around. When your child gets older and needs to decide whether or not to get in a car where the driver and passengers are drinking, we, as parents, are not going to be in the trunk, ready to get out and rescue them.

If we love our children, and we know that love is unquestionable, we need to give our children the space to grow, develop, decide, make mistakes and be responsible and competent.

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